Recently a new employee asked me to tell him more about our long history in the hobby. Here is the letter I shared…..
My Collecting History as a child & teenager>>
I started as a collector as an 8 year old in 1976 and was a very serious collector in the late 70s up until products were released in 1983. By the early 80s, I was buying full boxes of Topps from a local candy wholesaler. In 1981, I both went to my first card show and visited my first card store while on vacation (summer of 1981, I was 12). I thought that guy had the coolest job on the planet and could not believe someone could run a full-time business selling sports cards. The vision for my own store was born that day.
In 1983, I started dating and started high school that fall, and did very little with cards except for putting up a few boxes of Topps each year. In 1987 our hobby was “trending” nationally and the late 80’s card “boom” was on and I got back into the hobby big-time. I started devouring every sports card publication I could, I started attending every card show I could, and even started promoting shows in 1988 in two locations (Snellville and Rome where I was in college).
Store History >>
By the time graduation was approaching, I had a business degree and was planning on going to work for a sporting goods company in their management program. Instead, a college friend (Jeff Porter) I had done many shows with called me up the week before graduation and offered me the chance to open a store with him in Avondale Estates,GA. He graduated the year before me and went to work for someone else who had decided to close his store in the spring of ‘91 and offered us the chance to buy his showcases, existing “start-up” inventory, and we could sign a short 6 month lease for his 500 foot location.
Honestly, we had no business opening the business as we had no plan, no money, very little inventory, a lousy location, the internet did not exist for 7 more years, etc, but my mom told me that if this is what I wanted to pursue, this was the perfect time (3 months before I was getting married, no kids, etc). We opened the business and struggled from the very beginning. Within the first year, my partner left the day to day operations to start another business and we hired Ron Lee as our one part-time employee in 1992. Then came the baseball strike of 1994 where there was no World Series and basically collectors nationwide had no desire to support anything related to baseball players or their cards. Thankfully, other sports had started trending in demand (1989 to be exact was the year that other sports started getting recognition, as before that they were basically worthless).
The Big Buyout>>
I decided in 1995 that if the business was going to survive or truly succeed, I needed to go it alone as the owner so I bought my partner out for $7500 (with a loan from my parents). Then in 1996 I read the book “Over the Top” by Zig Ziglar which changed my life more than any book besides the Bible. It taught me both business and life principles that I started applying and with great help from Ron, the business started improving to the point that in 1998 I relocated to a bigger location (1100 feet) in Snellville. 1998 was a landmark year for the business as we not only relocated, but we also started selling on
ebay in December of that year and applied to become an authorized PSA dealer and authorized SGC dealer (BGS did not exist for 3 more years).
The economy was very good in the very late 90s (the “tech boom”) and there was money flowing into our industry. We had a good run until 9/11 in 2001.
The Dreadful Early 2000s>>
Our industry and countless others suffered financially from all the fear in our economy. 2002-2003 were very tough years, but I believed there were great days ahead for us so we relocated again in late 2003 to a 3200 foot space in Snellville. In hindsight, it was a lousy business decision at the time as we were already in a lot of debt, could not afford the rent, and honestly we struggled for the next 10-11 years including years where the business was well over $100,000 in credit card debt and had a failed attempt at selling to a buyer (2011) who was smart enough to get out after 3 months.
The card industry was not “trending”. It was not even an afterthought when it came to collecting. I would attend trade conferences year after year and compare notes with other shop owners about who had the most debt to pay off and how they were surviving, etc. It was a very depressing time. Why I did not get out when I was younger, I honestly don’t know other than I still loved what I did, and could not imagine throwing in the towel.
In 2009, we were forced to relocate as the owner of our building wanted to use it for other purposes, and we got a much larger space (6500 feet) for the same price we had been spending on our previous location that was half that size. Even so, we continued to struggle as there was just not enough demand for cards, coupled with the fact that I was burned out, and just kept doing to same things rather than innovating as needed.
In 2011, after my failed attempt to sell the business, we downsized to 2800 feet in an attempt to survive. I negotiated our rent down from $2300 to $600/month and this was critical to our survival. In time as we started making some progress on our debt, we began to expand again by renting the adjacent spaces next to our 2800 foot space. By the time we left that shopping center in 2018, we had close to 6000 feet again and the hobby was beginning to catch on nationally.
The Big Bold Step Forward>>
In early 2018 I was actively looking for a location to relocate to, either to purchase or rent. Our current building was our #1 candidate, but the original price tag was $595,000 and there was no way I could qualify for a loan of that size, nor did I want to take that much risk. Numerous other locations that I tried to rent continued to fall through, sometimes on the very day I was ready to put money down. I kept saying God must be opening a window somewhere because every door is being shut. 6 months after my wife Jane & I first viewed the building, I got a call from my realtor and the selling bank finally caved and accepted our offer of $412,000. I still had to jump through countless financial hoops to pull this off including a $200,000 bank loan, a $100,000 personal loan from my parents, and a $50,000 credit card loan.
Little did I know that when we closed on the building on 8/31/18, that our hobby was only 18 months away from an explosion unlike anything we’d ever seen. As I often tell collectors, the pandemic did not cause the boom in our industry, it just added fuel to the fire. Our industry had been getting better and better (from my analysis) since about 2015, but it went super nova for about 2 years from early 2020-early 2022. Now since that time, we’ve seen a huge pull back in record prices over the last two years; however, our hobby is still incredibly strong. Our retail store continues to improve as collectors travel from all over the country to visit us, and both our submissions to grading companies and consignment businesses continue to be strong. As we continue to fulfill our mission in a way that is incredibly unique to our industry, I believe God will continue to bless our efforts.
Why are we so different?
1. Most stores in our industry have no desire to handle any cards for customers (for grading or consignment). They don’t want the risk, they don’t want the headaches, it’s “not worth their time” as I’ve heard many store owners say.
2. Many stores in our industry are eager to buy collections at the lowest price possible for them (not necessarily the fairest price to both parties). Following our model of SERVING our customers, our first responsibility is to help educate them on the best way to maximize their $$.
One of the father/son teams that recently came in our store wanted to sell their cards. They had loads of high grade Mantle, Aaron, Clemente, etc. I told them point blank “Do not sell me your cards and do not sell them to anyone else.” I told them that if they did, they could be leaving countless $$ on the table by not seeing what the cards would grade first. They agreed, and instead we are now grading and taking their cards on consignment which creates small profit centers for us, but also ensures that they do not get taken advantage of.
3. Understand that what is a common practice for our company is nearly unheard of in our industry. I would say that 99 out of 100 stores would make an offer to purchase any nice collection that they are offered, but in many cases that could create WIN/LOSE. I’ve been there and done that and learned my lesson. I missed out on a huge, massive, phenomenal collection a few years ago as we thought the seller just wanted to sell, and instead we lost out to someone who offered to consign with them. That day I said to myself that would never ever happen again. I’ve learned it is best to LEAD with service. We LEAD with educating the seller and advising them as to the best steps to take with their cards. We now go for WIN/WIN every single time. That way we never miss out on a collection. Granted, we’ve had times when the seller only wants an offer so in those instances, I come up with an offer but only after educating them on what we think is the best path forward for their cards.
My vision to continue to survive (and hopefully continue to succeed) in the midst of this ever- changing landscape is to focus more and more on our mission that I laid out a few years ago. Our mission goes far beyond the accolades we have received as Topps retailer of the. year (awarded in 2019) or being inducted into the industry “hall of honor” (awarded in 2022).
“To honor God in all we do as we serve collectors both locally and globally.”
Now to break this mission down, we have to understand there is more to it than just operating with integrity. It involves focusing on serving and assisting our clients by helping do things for them that they cannot do for themselves. Recently when we had 3 huge collections arrive nearly at the same time on the same Friday, I called it the biggest day in our history, not because it generated a single sale, but in a short period of time we were able to assist 6 individuals (one couple from Michigan and two fathers/sons from metro Atlanta) with well over $125K worth of cards. All of them needed help both understanding the value of their collections and understanding what to do with their cards to maximize the value. In each circumstance, we are now both grading their cards and planning to either buy them or consign them after they are returned. This could be financially life changing for each group. That means so much to me that we get to help them and that they did not get taken advantage of as I’ve heard so many horror stories from sellers who did. I know there are countless more out there, both locally and globally that we can assist. We just have to continue to get our name out there, strive to continue to provide the best service in the industry, and they will find us. Thanks for reading!